2000, still college:
Michael Vick didn't expect to be a football hero, but his performance in the sugar bowl made it happen.
Randy King The Roanoke Times
August 24, 2000
Roanoke Times & World News
It was a couple days after the Jan.4 Sugar Bowl when Michael Vick fully recognized a sudden audible was in the works.
Thing was, Vick had absolutely no control over this line-of- scrimmage check-off that would forever change his play in the game of life.
"After the Sugar Bowl, I pretty much realized that things would never ever be the same again for Michael Vick," Virginia Tech's young, superstud quarterback said.
"Just like that, in the time it takes to play one football game, the whole world changed for Michael Vick. If you think about it, it's crazy, man."
Though Vick was far from an unknown commodity - hey, he led the upstart Hokies to an 11-0 regular season and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting as a redshirt freshman - his Sugar show was so sweet that he woke up the next morning in the New Orleans Hilton as an instant national phenomenon.
Overnight, a 19-year-old kid with an infectious smile, swashbuckling swagger and razzle-dazzle moves never seen before had become college football's answer to Elvis.
Forget that favored Florida State beat Virginia Tech 46-29 for the national championship. It seemed everybody else did.
When the lights went out that Tuesday night in the Louisiana Superdome, virtually all the talk was about how Vick dodged, darted, scrambled and escaped for 322 of Tech's 503 total yards against the nation's best defense.
So what if the kid lost the ball on the Superdome carpet twice, including a critical fumble on his own 34-yard line early in the fourth quarter that led to a field goal to put FSU ahead 39-29 and out of harm's way.
Fact was, the game was Vicktimized. Vick's breathtaking high-wire act produced the kind of electricity, sheer thrills and pure magic that comes encased with the molds of legends.
How did Vick do it? How did he turn a prime-time national television audience for repeated flips? How, on the basis of one night, has he become perhaps the most recognizable face of any player in college football?
"I've watched the Sugar Bowl tape several times," said Vick, speaking in his usual soft-tone, sometimes inaudible voice. "I look back at that game and say, 'Why?' Something just got into me that night, I don't know what it was.
"I guess I knew Florida State was up here and people were looking at us down here. Plus, people thought the freshman quarterback would choke.
"But people don't know me. I love competition. I love the challenge. I don't back down from nothing. That's the way I played in the back yard coming up.
"I just raised the level of my game and tried to raise the level of my teammates, and I did. We took it to Florida State. I asked those guys [the 'Noles] at one point, 'Do y'all think we're here for nothing?'"
The Hokies, who rallied from a 28-7 deficit to take a stunning 29- 28 lead into the fourth quarter, may have lost the game, but Vick's incredible effort stunted critics from questioning Tech's big-show credentials.
"I was in Houston the next day after the game," Tech coach Frank Beamer recalled. "I mean, I knew Michael had played a great football game, but it just didn't hit me.
"Then I'm doing a radio interview there and everybody is saying, 'This kid is amazing.' Florida State had just won the national championship and all the people wanted to talk about was Michael Vick.
"And it kind of hit me that he did just show the whole country something we kind of take for granted anymore. He's just a special player."
In the wake of all the hype and hoopla of New Orleans, Michael Vick said he actually thought his life might slow for a moment or so.
After the Sugar Bowl, Vick returned to his home and family in Newport News for a short respite before classes resumed at Tech.
After picking up some new wheels - a black 1994 Honda wearing 70,000 miles - at a local dealership, Vick was tooling innocently down the highway.
"I was driving home and somebody pulled up beside me," Vick said. "I looked to the side and I could see all these people, like, pointing at me, hollering 'That's him right there, that's him right there.' I got my windows tinted after that."
He got the same kind of dark windows that expensive limousines have, like those long, stretch jobs in Las Vegas, where Vick was an invited guest to the ESPY Awards last February.
Suddenly, Vick found himself hobnobbing with some of the biggest names in sports. For the first time in his life, Vick was left frozen in his tracks when stars such as Tiger Woods, Mark McGwire, Peyton Manning, Jerry Rice, Michael Johnson and actor Danny Glover sauntered over to introduce themselves.
"It simply blew Michael away that all those people actually knew he was," said Bryan Johnston, a member of the Tech sports information department who accompanied Vick on the trip.
"They all said they had seen me in the Sugar Bowl and they admired the way I play the game, the way I carry myself as a person," Vick said.
"That made me feel good inside. I mean these are big-name people. And I was like, man, I just want to continue to do all the things that have gotten me to this point today."
As Vick chatted with Woods, the announcement came that he won the ESPY for college football player of the year.
Some have compared Vick to Woods, the 24-year-old scourge of the PGA Tour. The correlation is that Vick's dominant, highly mobile game, in which he's as dangerous running as passing, has helped spark a revolution of the quarterback position in college football.
"The Tiger Woods of college football, heh?" mused Vick, flashing a wide grin. "Man! Just say I'm one of the best players in college football, OK? But it's great for people to compliment me that way."
Following his ESPY award, the Michael Vick U.S.A. identity quotient skyrocketed out of control.
Vick has learned celebrity comes with a price: Everybody wants a piece of him.
Vick can't go anywhere in public without being literally swamped by autograph hounds and being a magnet for swivelling, gawking heads.
"I've had to cut down the autographs," Vick said. "Sometimes people would come up to me with three, four things to sign. You do that for 20 people and you'll be out there all day signing autographs. I tell the people one autograph per person, one item per person."
On a recent trip to Kroger in Blacksburg, Johnston said Vick was corralled by a huge group of fans before he could muster 10 steps into the door.
"When I walk in the store, people are just turning and looking at me like I'm Michael Jordan or something," Vick said. "I feel like the same person, but I also feel like a celebrity or somebody. Sometimes people make you feel that way."
Emmett Johnson, a junior split end who shares an apartment with Vick along with former Hokies player Reggie Samuel, said he doesn't know how Vick keeps his cool in the rush of the public eye.
"If you go to the store with Mike, you're going to get stopped a lot," Johnson said. "Yeah, I feel for him in that respect. It couldn't be me. I couldn't handle it. But I don't think it fazes him."
Hokies senior rover Cory Bird, who said he intentionally sits in the back of heavily populated classrooms "to keep a low profile," said there is no available camouflage for Vick. Heck, the guy might as well wear his No.7 Tech jersey all the time, Bird said.
"The camera is always on Mike," Bird said. "You can't mistake his face. I feel for him. But I mean, how can you really feel for him? The man is the front-runner for the Heisman."
In the 65-year history of the Heisman Trophy, no sophomore has won college football's most prestigious individual prize.
So what, the experts say. Many have stamped Vick, who last year became one of three freshmen to finish third in the balloting, as this year's odds-on favorite.
"Yeah, Michael is sure good enough to win the Heisman," said Rickey Bustle, Vick's QB coach and Tech's offensive coordinator.
"But, I mean, how many runs can he make and they say he's a better runner than he was last year? How many throws can he make and they say he's a better passer?"
Beamer said he thinks Vick will improve.
"I don't know if his stats will say that, I don't know if the wins will say that, but Michael will be a better player this year than he was last year," Beamer said.
Vick contends he hasn't lost a minute's sleep worrying about the Heisman.
"To tell you the truth, I haven't even thought about it," Vick said. "I wasn't even supposed to be up there [last year], that's what I think.
"Hopefully, one day I'll have have a chance to go up there and hear my name called and grab that trophy. It would be another dream come true."
It appears the kid certainly has a mass media push behind him. Unquestionably, Vick has been adopted as college football's No.1 poster child. He has appeared on the covers of nine national publications since late June, including Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine this month.
"Yeah, that's sort of amazing to me," Vick said. "I walk into Kroger and see my face on five different magazines and I'm just looking at it, just smiling saying, 'Damn,' you know. It's just, like, shocking to me.
"The cover of Sports Illustrated ... it doesn't get any bigger than that.
"But know what? You can go in my apartment right now and I don't have a one of 'em. I don't know why. I just don't buy 'em. I don't want 'em.
"All these interviews, I appreciate that. They do get a little tiring at times, but they're not that bad.
"The thing is, I'm not going to be satisfied until I accomplish my goal. All this stuff doesn't really mean anything to me until I get some green in my pocket."
Lure of the NFL
Green in the pocket. When it comes to the subject of No.7, there's not a Hokies fan in captivity who isn't worried that one day soon it will become all about the Benjamins for Michael Vick.
Under NFL rules, Vick wasn't eligible for last April's draft. He will be next April, however, should he elect to leave Tech early.
More than one NFL scout has said privately that Vick would have been the first QB drafted this year if he had been available.
At the conclusion of its coverage of last April's draft, ESPN flashed a graphic listing the top prospects for the 2001 draft. Michael Vick's name was at the top of the list.
"It's impossible to try and ignore that ... it is when they're telling you can be in the first round," Vick confessed.
"But, really, I haven't been thinking about all that stuff. I'm telling you the God honest truth, the only thing I'm worried about is my team and this football season."
But if Vick has another monster season and, say, wins the Heisman, will he throw the stiff arm to college and bolt for the guaranteed riches awaiting him in the pros?
"Yeah, it will, but who knows?" responded Vick, when asked if capturing this year's Heisman could play in his decision.
Although one Tech coach said he'd be willing to lay 100-to-1 odds Vick won't leave before next season, it also appears that most everyone has conceded that him playing four years in Blacksburg is a snowball's-in-hell chance.
"I can't really give you my honest opinion on that," Bird said about Vick possibly leaving early. "You can't blame him if he does, you can't blame him if he doesn't."
Agents cherishing a cut of what will be a veritable financial buffet - Kentucky QB Tim Couch, the No.1 overall pick in the 1998 draft, was worth $48 million to the Cleveland Browns - had caught scent and were bird-dogging Vick's trail home from the Big Easy.
"There have been a couple of agents who have tried to get to me," Vick said. "I just tell 'em, 'You know, if you really want me, then you wouldn't talk to me until I'm ready to come out.'
"My mom has gotten a couple of calls at home and she cuts 'em off real fast. She don't play with 'em, not at all."
Vick is smart enough to know he has to watch out for unscrupulous parties trying to get to him.
"In my position, I've got to be extremely careful of whom I talk to, whom I hang out with," Vick said. "There are people out there looking to take advantage of you and your situation."
In an effort Vick greatly appreciates, Tech is helping its star keep some of the external forces at bay.
Senior athletic director Sharon McCloskey, who is a.ssigned to the Vick beat, talked with officials from the University of Tennessee about how they handled the celebrity blitz on All-American QB Peyton Manning in 1997.
"We're trying to keep Mike's life as normal as possible," said McCloskey, whose office includes a huge box full of mail and correspondence addressed to Vick.
"Stacks of stuff come in every day," McCloskey said. "Stuff from all over the country to be signed. I just send the folks a letter back - if they've included a stamped return envelope - saying, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'"
McCloskey has compared the Vick phenomenon to "rock star-like status."
"I've never seen anything like it," she said. "Somebody called from Austria the other day. It's unbelievable."
At Beamer's request, Vick will have a chosen time period each week this season to talk to the media.
"You guys need to have access to him, but Michael's life doesn't need to change so much that he's getting away from what's really important - how he plays on Saturday. Because that's really the bottom line."